Category Archives: rants

Tamale as Metaphor (Some notes)

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Sitting in her smokey mobile home, my grandma called me a tamale once. I was a young child when her spatula pointed at me both accusingly and endearingly.

I didn’t learn to make them until nestled into Ally’s family decades later. Her grandma’s hands already shook by the time she showed me how to do it. Tremors on masa. Husks sometimes inside out, soaking in perpetuity. We are smeared and spread a little too thin sometimes.

A boy—16 and on fire—once passed out drunk and in tears in my classroom. Just up and fell out of his chair and into his dreams like in a movie. This was just a few months shy of the ubiquity of kids recording every outburst on cellphones, at least saving this brother the indignity of going viral while his heart was melting open.

When I visited him in the nurse’s office after class, he was penning an apology. “Dear Mr. Garcia, there are so many obstacles in my life that God didn’t foretell.” I remember that beginning. I remember it because a 16-year old who is so intimately familiar with how life doesn’t proceed along cleanly cut lines that he naturally wields “foretell” is someone you don’t forget.

We get tied up sometimes. All of us. Our husks maybe a little too rigid for the task of making sure we don’t lose our way. That fibrous thread has helped makes sure we maintain a semblance of normality, even if it cinches a bit too tight.

Learning, my fat fingers fumble with the shifting weight of making something coalesce. Easing the uncooked vessels into their place in that massive pot. They only seem uniform because their guts are all the same.

We all have promise and we all make of that promise with hands that remember, that slip, that shake, that tremor.

I was bothering our nanny last week, thinking about faith and agitated about the obstacles that she was facing that also hadn’t been foretold. I asked “Is this God’s plan?” She said God has a plan, but people have the capacity to act and to change it.

My clumsy thumbs, our foolish hearts, sixteen months of shutting off the world and sheltering in place: these are plan changers. They are amateur fingertips badly wrapping someone else’s meal.

Tamales are a messy metaphor. You squeeze too hard and you end up with a whole bunch of nothing. But there is an act of deliberate creation in making one ready for steaming, for wrapping it up with a bit of care and a bit of patience. They have an expected shape but some are just chueco.

I didn’t know what my grandma meant when she labeled me tamale. I hear it today as uncertain potential, packed by culture, by privilege, by at least a little bit of hope. Her words echo across time. That drunk child, a tamale. Lately I’ve been thinking about him, so earnest and confined as he wrote so clearly of how his life was a series of barricaded desires. How we all get tied up.

Every tamale, a minor gift-wrapped miracle. An act of love and a promise that nothing is foretold.

Make Your Own Gathering: Lessons Learned from Co-Organizing the #SpeculativeEd Colloquium

The Speculative Education Colloquium took place last week. Across two days of breakouts, featured speakers, and engaged online dialogue we expected a couple dozen people to join us for this event. We had several hundred sign up instead. In terms of our original hope of furthering a space for imagining critical pathways forward in education and educational research, the event feels like a successful one, though there are some areas we learned from that I think we can share with others here.

While the substance of the convening will hopefully yield breakout groups, offshoot gatherings, and classroom practices that may funnel into the public in the future, I wanted to reflect on the process of putting this event together and some of the lessons that Nicole and I learned. We announced the event three weeks before it took place and–including selecting dates, format, and inviting speakers–the entire project was a month long from start to finish. This design post-mortem is intended to help others plan for similarly-scaled events utilizing online virtual platforms.

Make it Happen

The biggest piece of advice that I think we can convey is that–if you are at all interested in bringing folks together, to sustain community and to engage in collective dreaming–do it. There are a lot of us sitting in physical distance from one another who are ready for something (virtually) tangible for us to work toward or learn from. To be honest, my own scholarship has suffered over the past two months. Stringing together academic writing, engaging in sustained data analysis, doing the hard work of substantial paper revisions: these are things that, cognitively and emotionally, I am having a hard time attending to right now. I imagine that’s the case for a lot of us. However, bursts of energy (ahem, maybe blog post-length): I can do that. And so, whether it’s hosting gatherings, writing shorter, accessible essays, or reviewing academic manuscripts, things that take discrete sets of time to complete are at least conveying the feeling of productivity (for myself) during a time when it’s okay for us to not actually be productive; this labor/market tension–particularly in the academy right now is a slippery one–I’ll probably ramble about this elsewhere. The convergence of this anxious energy with the willingness and creativity of an academic collaborator I’ve been lucky enough to learn alongside meant making space to create this event feel rejuvenating and personally useful. If any of this resonates with you and having a community to engage around your thing would be useful, do it. While somewhat labor intensive, this was a fun event that I feel nourished by. You can do this too. 

Lower the Stakes and Under Promise

As mentioned above, Nicole and I (really) expected a handful of people to join us. We expected this to be a low-stakes event for sustained conversation for a couple days. For us, we had time open on our calendar because AERA was cancelled and–worst case scenario–the two of us would use the time to talk about a topic we were interested in. Even if no one else came, this event’s space and time would have been useful for us: it was a no-lose situation

Once we sent out a general invitation to speakers and to the general public, we didn’t make any grand promises: come gather for a bit and we’ll see what happens. It’s free and so if you don’t like it or you can’t make it anymore, no harm done. We did ask participants what they were interested in (and saw a wide range of responses). That feedback shaped our breakout rooms and hopefully led to smaller, independent activities that could emerge from the event’s collaborative document. 

Be Flexible

Once 100 people signed up for the event–two days after it was announced–we figured about half of those people would show up and the event was now larger than what we originally envisioned. We were in a tricky situation: we were too big for a collective dialogue (or at least we thought we were) and we were lucky enough to have all of our speakers confirm that they would participate. This made our schedule tighter than we expected–instead of having a few dozen people in close conversation with Megan Bang, for example, we could all listen to her, have limited time for Q&A, and have two breakout sessions. This wasn’t what we planned, but we went with it. If you are doing an event like this, consider how you might scale the context to accommodate larger and smaller groups. Further, how can you do this scaling in the moment? For example, we had a large number of breakout rooms prepared to be facilitated by friends; if we had much fewer attendees, we would just cancel a few of these rooms to make the others create fuller spaces (this didn’t quite work out and I’ll talk about that below).

A quick note on sign ups: before the event started just over 400 people signed up. We circulated this invitation only via tweets and Facebook posts and hoped it reached people who were interested via word of mouth. Of the people signed up, we had a peak of 220 (or so) people during the colloquium and the number dipped as it got closer to each day’s conclusion. We expected about half of the people signed up to join and that seems like a decent rule of thumb for online, free events in general. 

Find Synergies

We knew most of our speakers would likely have attended AERA and so the ask for their participation was an easier one. This event intentionally moved alongside similar scholarly interests–our framing for the event was based on the invitation by Drs. Na’ilah Nasir and Megan Bang and clearly aligned with the scholarship of each of our speakers. Though these speakers were clearly making innovative leaps in the new work they presented, the request to share within the context of this colloquium wasn’t exactly out of left field. I do want to note that, as a free event that was not affiliated with either of our institutions, we did not have funding to compensate the donated labor and energy of our six speakers. That is something I think we would try to address differently in the future, if we were to do one of these events again. 

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Be Vigilant

The things that Nicole and I were most worried about were chat spamming, zoom-bombing, and other forms of online harassment that might have occurred. Two days before the event, the AERA online Presidential Presentation had to turn off chat functionality during Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker’s powerful address because of comments made in the chat. Particularly considering that all of our speakers were presenting from and addressing scholarly and personal commitments to historically marginalized communities, making sure that online harassment did not occur was our fundamental concern and point of stress for the event. We know that the forms of harassment that we are concerned about disproportionately affect BIPOC, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

To our knowledge, we did not have any issues with trolling or harassment during the event. While we cannot account for private messages that may have been exchanged or communication after the event, I feel proud of the work we did trying to ensure this space was a safe one.

We spent substantial time prior to the event testing out and confirming security functionality for the Zoom. We only sent links to the password-protected Zoom the night before the event, to minimize interlopers. We had a waiting room and let people into the event by first trying to confirm their names based on our sign up. We had multiple co-hosts of the Zoom and we were all in communication on a Slack channel identifying potential usernames we did not recognize or comments that raised any flags for us. We all had practiced the processes for turning off chat, ensuring participants could not share their screens, and–if need be–kicking people out of the event. When speakers were presenting, we also disabled participants’ ability to unmute themselves, ensuring the speakers would not be interrupted. These sound draconian, but we would rather a vigilant enforcement of safety than an unsafe space for our participants and speakers.

Most importantly, we wrote–and announced each day–a code of conduct for the colloquium. This was substantially adapted from a policy written by the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE

While I don’t love the need for such rigorous moderating of the event or the fact that so much of this insecurity is based on our over reliance on proprietary software that governs so much of our online interactions, it was the choice we made. We could have spent substantial time at the beginning of the event establishing collective norms with our participants–if we were a smaller group we probably would have. However, given that we wanted to prioritize the content of this colloquium, we went with the decisions noted above. I would be curious what strategies others are employing right now.

Ask for Patience

There are a lot of ways this event could go wrong. At the beginning of both days and in our email communication with participants, we asked everyone for patience as we collectively figured this out. Maybe it helped (?) that the first email I sent out about this was unintentionally formatted wonkily, immediately lowering people’s expectations (fortunately, Nicole took over emailing participants for the event moving forward!). Again, because this event was free, if things didn’t quite work out–like when the Zoom meeting abruptly ended for everyone at the end of Day 1–we could all smile and let the learning and convening continue. 

Some Pain Points

There are a few areas we know we could have improved in this event and I share these below.

Access

We could have been better when it came to accessibility for this event. Yes, that’s the case broadly in schooling and particularly for forms of distance learning right now, but for our event, this could have been better. Three weeks prior to the event we started looking into captioning options. We made weekly progress getting the right APIs to talk with one another to enable automated captioning; while we didn’t have funding to hire someone to type captions for the event, we were planning to pay for the cheaper and still less ideal automated captions. Up to 24 hours before the event took place, we expected this to be functional. However, with various security levels to fiddle with Zoom, we were not able to get this option set up in time. We are aware that this likely affected some participants’ engagement. To be clear, this isn’t the only form of accessibility we needed to consider and this event had shortcomings among multiple lines in this regard. Early on, we acknowledged that a virtual convening like this one privileged folks with access to strong internet connections, for example. 

Recording

This is less a pain point for us than for people who want the content from speakers. Even before the event was concluded, we were getting requests to share the videos of the speakers from the colloquium. Honestly, every speaker was amazing. And while we will share some of these talks very soon, we also were explicit with our underpromise in this regard. We only recorded the speakers’ presentations, cut off the recording once public Q&A began, and conveyed to everyone that we were uncertain if these recordings would be made available publicly. Again, our intention wasn’t to amass and collect others’ knowledge. After the colloquium, we emailed each speaker a link to download their own video recording. It is their work and their file to decide what to do with. We wanted to shift responsibility around this work to give back to speakers–particularly scholars that data suggests are often less cited or recognized for their contributions–to ensure that knowledge is both preserved and moved forward in ways that are responsive to individuals. Depending on your event, we could imagine you choose to record or not record in different ways, but think intentionally about what that recording light on Zoom calls does for participation. Speaking of …

Participation

We collected comments and questions from the chat, asked participants to “raise their hands” through Zoom’s functionality, and had a robust hashtag on Twitter as inputs for participation. There was also a powerful social annotation effort happening alongside the event. However, the size of the event meant that these structures did not ensure that everyone’s voices were heard. It also meant that it sometimes felt like there was a disconnect or lack of engagement from the large group if questions didn’t flow for speakers at some points. It also didn’t help that Stanford’s Zoom settings disable copying text or clicking on links. 

Some strategies we used to mitigate these limitations—that might be helpful for you—included abundant use of customized tinyurls and an open google doc. The tinyurls were easy to share on a screen and, even when participants couldn’t click them, weren’t too difficult to type into a browser. In general, all of our information was distilled to a single, read-only google doc that we updated frequently. On this doc, we would post the agenda, links to all breakouts, links to related information, and things like a concluding evaluation form and the aforementioned google doc. In essence, if participants could access this document they could get to any other materials for the convening pretty easily.

The open google doc functioned as a sign-in page so that participants could share contact information, converge around interests, and offer any relevant resources. There was a “sandbox” that we encouraged individuals to use to cluster around projects and topics–revisiting it now, there are several pages of potential projects that were born out of this event. This was an unorganized space and—again setting lowered expectations—we were not building a listserv or database to share later. Rather, we hoped people would use this space in the moment. At the beginning of the first day, we hit the limit of how many participants could be on this doc at any given time, so this may not be a feasible space for events of this size or larger. 
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Breakouts

Our breakouts were named based thematically on the interests people listed when they signed up for the colloquium. Participation in them varied widely. Some breakouts had 30-50 people in them and some had 2 people in them (though facilitators noted that these smaller groups had robust and personal conversation as a result). Because we didn’t want to sort people manually into groups or to assign people to random rooms, we solicited the help of friends that we knew signed up for the event. Since most of us have institutional Zoom accounts, Nicole organized rooms using multiple folks’ accounts:

Screenshot 2020-04-25 19.00.51

Again, the read-only google doc served as the hub for finding these sessions. In addition to a host for each room that served as the space’s facilitator, Nicole also created a note-taking generic document. This page was shared with breakout rooms individually. All of these spaces, links, and organization took time in advance to make the day of the event flow somewhat seamlessly. 

Returning back to the main meeting space from Zoom—like reconvening from group activities in a class or like a broader conference session—took time and we should have given ourselves more of it for this. We also saw some drop-off of attendees (who likely chose not to participate in the smaller breakouts); this didn’t surprise us, but I note it here for your own planning considerations. 

Competing Activities

The same week that we announced this colloquium, Nicole and I also shared an adjacent (but different) idea, called #RogueAERA. Our attention to this colloquium meant we didn’t spend as much time on #RogueAERA, though there were some amazing contributions to the hashtag. However, because we had two different (but kinda related) hashtags floating around at the same time, we saw a lot of overlap between the uses of these spaces. Both #SpeculativeEd and #RogueAERA served as back-channeling spaces for the event, even if that wasn’t our intended outcome. I note this here to consider how you might make clear the boundaries of your space and the need to be flexible when participation begins to seep beyond those boundaries. 

What’s Next

We aren’t sure! There are so many different things that could emerge from this colloquium. None of them have to be organized by Nicole or by me. This is an open invitation for others to lead the what’s next. I know this event is helping shape some of my own thinking and it is helping me ease back into the scholarly writing I had been adrift from.

Finally, about three weeks prior to the event, we did receive–via the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching–the support of Stanford doctoral student Kelly Boles; she played a substantial role organizing and working on the logistics with us. We really appreciate getting to learn with Kelly on this project. Alongside her, we are also grateful for the support of friends and colleagues that hosted breakout rooms, Joe Dillon and Remi Kalir’s work facilitating the social annotation for this project, and the many participants that tweeted or contributed resources throughout the event.

Three wishes for a virtual #AERA20  

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With AERA’s announcement that this year’s annual meeting is now a virtual one, there is a real opportunity for this conference to shift how thousands of educational researchers engage, interact, and view online learning opportunities. I have a sinking feeling we will collectively fail at this, based on every single other online conference I have participated in. They are terrible. Always.

At the same time, I spend a lot of time watching gamers and musicians perform live and interact with an audience. These are thriving communities and they are clearly getting it right. AERA probably needs to look closer to what a Twitch stream looks like for a charity event like Awesome Games Done Quick, for example (a bi-annual video game marathon that gets tens of thousands of viewers consistently during its weeklong duration).

Based on what I think will fail, here are my three hopes that I think would make this conference a successful one:

1. 1-Click participation

This is the thing I am most concerned about. If you’ve ever participated in an online conference, it usually requires registering for a system, downloading some proprietary software, and potentially waiting in a limbo-like screen until a session begins. It’s a confusing mess and nothing will turn off an audience faster than an experience that isn’t intuitive and seamless. It needs to be as simple as clicking a YouTube link and you are in. Literally that. Click, you are in. I am not necessarily a fan of YouTube as a platform, but if it means every AERA member can click a link and see a session at any given time (and it is later archived as an easily accessible YouTube video), I am all for it. More than any other aspect, this will be the thing that makes or breaks this conference.

1.a It’s not gonna be a regular conference

Okay, kind of cheating, but this is a continuation of my thoughts above. It’s no longer a face to face conference. That’s a given. So Do. Not. Try. To. Replicate. Traditional. Conference. Practices. For example, there is an intuitive chat feature on YouTube live videos – this would be an ideal space for a moderator to pull questions. However, I could imagine that a smaller group of viewers might want to actually talk after a particular presentation. Rather than resort to muddying an intuitive conference space for everyone, offer drop-in Zoom rooms (that can be recorded for later viewing if so interested) for further interaction and affinity-focused networking. For example, my amazing advisee is part of a 40-minute panel on the role of YA literature and equity in civic literacy contexts. The three panelists and discussant share slides to a live YouTube audience that gets 50-100 viewers (more than they’d probably get in a room at the SF-based conference!). At the end of the session, the presenter shares a link to a separate videoconferencing/Zoom room where they will be further discussing their research for the next 20 minutes. Maybe 6-7 other people join that conversation and the rest of the audience moves on to the next panel of presenters. It is a win-win: a more rewarding, smaller conversation, and an easily clickable YouTube link that works for all AERA members regardless of proxies, paywalls, or regions of the world. Let’s make this simple.

2. Ditch the names

With the exception of getting notable discussants and chairs to help contextualize new work, let’s use this space as an opportunity to highlight the voices that most benefit from being heard in these conferences. Doctoral students, post-docs, new faculty, practitioners—that’s who I would want to hear from. It should go without saying, but we need to specifically center Black, indigenous, and people of color in these presentations… but I probably need to say it anyways.

I am imagining each division and SIG is going to prune their program to a handful of sessions and I could see the inclination is to get the biggest names to ensure people tune in. They are not the people who need to be heard from. We need to put trust in the conference chairs for each section and the work they put forward, but I hope it isn’t just big name scholars. I can read their work already. I want sessions that challenge my thinking and introduce me to a new set of scholars I’ll be excited to meet in face-to-face contexts in the future.

3. Embrace Different Time Zones and Formats

The beauty of an organization like AERA is how many time zones our research spans. Since we are not confined to the whims of traditional working hours or hotel ballroom timeframes, why not shift to ensure that the conference is sharing work at all hours? It would be kind of amazing to get to click on a conference link at 3 a.m. in a given time zone and be whisked into somebody’s research from another part of the country (and if I am sleeping when the next great presentation occurs, it will be archived for me to catch up on anyway!). I’m writing this at 10:40ish p.m. on a Saturday as I watch my daughters sleep noisily on the baby monitor next to my desk. My working hours have not looked anything remotely like a normal 9-5 since becoming a professor and the 8 months of being a dad of twins has blown away any semblance of a regular schedule. I would love to feel engaged with a conference that lets me somehow plug in based on the time I have available.

 

Again, I think there is a real opportunity that comes with this necessary shift for this conference (and the many others that are being moved online for health and safety reasons). The more we put this conference behind log-ins and force it to adhere to traditional, physical conference rules, the more it will be an abysmal failure. Let’s not let that happen.

Four Emotions While Watching Pixar’s Inside Out: Body Shaming, #CharlestonShooting, and the Privileged Feels

Building off of the four key emotions portrayed in Inside Out, a quartet of reflections on Pixar’s latest.

Joy

It’s a fun Pixar film that gives you Pixar feels. Yay.

(Also, the fleeting nod to Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field” was a nice gesture.)

 

Anger

As much as I wanted to love this movie, I kept wondering why the characters of “Anger” and “Sadness” had to be the heavyset characters. The former resorts to violence and the latter is so lazy she is dragged on the floor throughout a third of the movie. If I think about the diverse bodies we have, I can’t help but ponder what effect seeing one’s larger body type manifested as someone that is “angry” or “sad” will have on an impressionable audience. What does this movie say about who I am and my relationship to feelings of joy if I am considered “fat” by society’s definitions?

 

Disgust

At the heart of this movie (and not really a spoiler) is a young girl struggling to adjust to life in a new city with her parents; there are delays from a moving truck, a fleeting moment of embarrassment in school, an argument at home. The entire social and emotional range that this character undergoes is rooted in the pretty comfortable life of being a white girl in an upper-middle-class family in an industrialized, wireless, and accepting society. As I watched the movie, I reflected on Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s scholarship on “critical hope,” the signs of PTSD that youth in spaces of poverty experience, and the ways youth of color’s feelings would be triggered by entirely different circumstances than those of the protagonist of the film. This is very much a film for and about white feelings. (My caveat here about reading Catcher in the Rye with my high school students applies to this concern. But. But the whiteness of the film’s emotional core is frustrating in light of where American discourse stands in 2015, which brings me to…)

 

Fear

Last night, nine people were murdered. It was fueled by hate and our country needs to do more than mourn. We need to have important discussion and action about race, our history of racism, and what “fear” means when it feels like it is open season on unarmed boys and girls of color in the U.S. I worry that the snow-globe like feelings of Inside Out and an underlying feeling of see-we’re-all-the-same does more harm than good when the very real differences in where we’re born and from whom can mean life or death.

“Just One More Minute”: Exuberantly Doing Too Much

I’ve been thinking a lot about the video above. It’s not Owen Pallett’s best performance – a little rushed and rough around the edges (perhaps for obvious reasons as you watch it). However, the joy in performing and exploring and sharing his work – in recklessly racing past a threshold of safety in doing so – feels infectious.

Lately, I’ve been doing more work than I expected or probably should. I’m in the midst of writing, reviewing proofs of, collecting writing of others for several different books. I’m diving into the beginning of a three-year grant project with some awesome colleagues here in Colorado. I’m moving forward with a multi-year ethnographic study of tabletop gameplay. All of these are exciting announcements that will merit their own posts as they slowly manifest online real estate in the next few months. I suspect, if pressed, mentors will tell me to scale back on some of this work. Focus.

And yet. I love that I can chase down so many avenues of what learning, engagement, and literacy look like today. Career-wise it’s not a race, but I also think about the urgency of the students in our schools, everyday, that deserve better. I didn’t leave the K-12 classroom to coast comfortably through academia (and such notions are quickly laid to waste when looking at tenure requirements and the expected hustle of labor in higher education). And at the same time, all of the work I’m doing feels fun. Sure, the moment-to-moment drudgery of editing or writing is work, but it’s rewarding work that feels like prodding in unfamiliar spaces of our understanding of how people learn and how to make our educational processes better. I’m often racing from one online conversation to meeting with an advisee to chasing down a writing deadline. “Just one more minute.”

This summer has already been a busy one. The CSU Writing Project’s kicked off a summer youth program for the Youth Scientific Civic Inquiry work I helped conceptualize with other scholars in Fort Collins. I’ve collaborated on several presentations and teacher workshops at comic conventions (both in Denver and next month in San Diego). I helped organize a local panel with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in Denver. There were several workshops with school districts. Some game design work for teacher PD that is being funneled into public existence very soon. All this to say I write this from LAX, having spent a week in LA for three different events: a handful of presentations at the DML 2015 conference (easiest link-fodder: this ignite talk with the wonderful Anna Smith), the first (of many) C:\DAGS game jams (full write up coming), and a day-long Games+Learning Summit held in conjunction with the E3 convention currently happening. “Just let me finish this song.” Foolhardy, rewarding, energizing.

I’ll end here by noting that this isn’t just about being busy (something I’ve reflected on here). Whether watching “bad” reality TV (I am seriously pondering a post on Married at First Sight at some point), occasionally hiking, or playing board games with friends (Sushi Go is our latest favorite), being deliberate with when I’m “on” has been rejuvenating. I recently bough a digital alarm clock so that my iPhone doesn’t come into my bedroom, something that’s helped me be deliberate with reading at night, not checking my email as soon as I wake up, and not worrying about what’s happening in the digital realm for a few hours each night.

Earlier this month, Ally and I trekked to Red Rocks to see a couple of openers for the band The Decemberists – Spoon and Courtney Barnett. Their performances were loud and playful in the occasionally raining weather that CO is so good at surprising me with on a near-daily basis. Spoon finished their set backed by the panache of lightning across the Front Range. Afterwards, the venue went into a weather delay. I remembered seeing the Decemberists playing in UCLA’s Kerckhoff Hall coffee shop more than a decade ago and we decided to make the long walk to our car, toward shelter, back home. I was sure that the Decemberists might be giving their own “One more minute” performance in one of the most amazing, natural amphitheaters in the world. But we pick our battles and this was a time when it felt wonderful to splash in the parking lot toward our car and to find respite, even if we were missing someone else’s opus.

The Problem with “Three Miles,” a recent This American Life episode

Last week, I listened to the recent This American Life episode, “Three Miles.”

The project at the heart of the episode–having students from the poorest congressional district in the U.S. visit with students of a wealthy, $43,000 a year private school. (The title refers to the fact that the schools are only three miles apart.) In good storytelling fashion, there is a strong narrative that pulls the episode together. At the same time, the episode reminded me of projects that took place while I was a teacher in Los Angeles and, particularly, of the Council of Youth Research, which explored educational inequities throughout the city.

Reflecting on the same episode, my friend-and-sometimes-nemesis Mark (co-founder of the Critical Design and Gaming School in South Central Los Angeles) asked: “how are we preparing our students to be resilient in the face of institutional and internalized systems of oppression?

While I appreciated the portraits of inequity, difficulty in college as youth of color, and the candid perspectives shared by the teachers in the episode, I was troubled by the implications of the episode’s principal reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt, at the show’s conclusion.

Discussing how one young woman has struggled to succeed after high school, Joffe-Walt concludes the episode saying:

I have a theory about this: I think Angela has this memory of Melanie making it, triumphantly making it because it is really hard to believe that Melanie would not make it. And I can completely understand that. … I keep expecting there to be news like she’s about to get her big break and things will happen for her. It feels suspenseful but nothing has happened for her for 10 years. I think it’s some special brand of American pathological optimism that so many of us believe the story of Melanie has to turn out to be happy. And if it doesn’t then something unusual has happened. And not just this is what happens all the time.

Up until this final moment of the show, I fully intended for this to be an episode my students–all future teachers–would listen to and critique. But this ruined it. This “optimism” that Chana discusses, while it may be true to her feelings, also reflects a painful naïveté about the state of urban schooling in the U.S.

Talking with a friend about the episode recently, we discussed how the simple choices to go to college, work hard, and succeed are anything but transparent for many youth of color. As a teacher, I was hyper-aware of this in my classroom; even as I demanded highly of my students, the reality of many of them going to college was often low when they were faced with the expectations of supporting family members (both in the U.S. and back in countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Ethiopia). As my friend (currently pursuing a doctorate in the sciences) said:


And this is why I’m so frustrated with this end of this episode. No, Chana, it’s not that “something unusual happened.” The choices and assumptions of success we place on young people are not always realistic or paint an accurate picture of students’ lives. These final words damage; the perpetuate a culture that blames youth of color for not matriculating into higher education rather than condemning a system that operates on “optimism”.” Unfortunately, Chana and This American Life, many of our youth do not conform smoothly with privileged ideologies about “making it” in today’s society.

Fandom, Ownership, and Improvisation: A Triptych on Improvisation

I

Last night Ally and I made the trek to Boulder to see the Brad Mehldau trio perform. I’d seen Mehldau a couple of times back in LA (he’s even released an album titled after my favorite venue). I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that the show was Mehldau performing as part of a trio (with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard on bass and drums respectively). I’d expected something closer to this (akin to the direction of his most recent album MehlianaTaming the Dragon):

Aside from beginning with an original song, the entire show was a set of covers. From the Beatles to Gillian Welch to Radiohead, Mehldau’s work weaves familiarity with the unexpected. It’s interesting to listen to the audience reactions during jazz performances (something Paul F. Tompkins lampoons here). There is usually laughter in two places in jazz shows. First, the audience will quietly laugh when they know a song. The excitement of familiarity when Mehldau launched into “And I Love Her,” for instance signaled that the audience knew this song. Conversely, the audience laughs when a line or solo goes in the complete opposite direction of where they expected. A mid-tempo solo that flies into high gear, a series of notes outside of the song’s key, a start-stop drum solo. We find pleasure, surprise, and laughter in the familiar and the unknown. It is the mixture of these two that builds pleasure in the consumer here.

II

Saturday, a day before the Mehldau show, I presented at the Colorado Teen Lit Conference. In my session, I mainly facilitated conversations around how participatory media can act as a tool of empowerment for YA readers. In one example (and as described in my book) I highlighted how Cassandra Clare practiced and developed her YA-oriented writing through engagement with fan fiction communities. At the heart of this discussion are a bunch of complex issues revolving ownership, plagiarism, marketing and capitalism. Several in the room (myself included) discussed how we have successfully gotten kids to write powerful stories through adapting fan fiction models for the classroom. The number of NaNoWriMo submissions I got from my students who inserted themselves in their favorite Cirque Du Freak or Vladamir Tod settings was a powerful testament to how fandom can initiate and sustain writing.

Writing is hard. Getting published even harder. Keynote speaker, A.S. King described the arduous process of getting her first novel in print:

 

Teachers steal all the time. Musicians cover as a staple of their own repetoires. Without consciously building on successful models (and remixing what makes them successful), how can young writers develop a personal voice?

III

Like Mehldau, last year when my colleague Leif and I saw Jason Moran in concert, his set was primarily a series of covers (including briefly schooling the attendees about the “Negro National Anthem”). Perhaps more striking is that Moran would begin many of his songs by scrolling through his iPod, playing a song through the house speakers and slowly begin playing along with the canonized recording. Eventually he would fade out the recorded song and he and his band mates would seamlessly move the song into a new, unexpected direction. Like Mehldau, this was a master of his craft playing along with canonical recordings. Thinking about this from a literacies perspective, I think there are (at least) two important reasons covers are so important in musical performance:

  • First: it is a signal to the audience familiarity. Audience members muttered and harrumphed when the first recognizable melodic lines of “And I Love Her” were played by Mehldau. Minutes later, the song was an unrecognizable, rejuvenating­–and highly original–samba.
  • Second: it grounds the artist in a political, historical, cultural, social, place. Just as the audience can understand and recognize the familiar tropes of a cover, a musician can adhere to, respond to, or redefine the emotional voice from which a cover comes from. By starting with something pre-established, a cover song can create pathways and constraints for new work to emerge.

When an audience member requested Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” at last night’s Mehldau show, it wasn’t because he thought he was getting  the ‘90s rock song version. It was because the piece was both familiar and utterly transformed. Likewise, when Moran launches into “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa it isn’t because they are expecting to hear a hip-hop classic.

All compositions are grounded in complex matrices. The social, historical, cultural, and political intersect in the words we write, the notes we play, the lessons we teach. A cover of a standard, or a Beatles song, or a Radiohead hit, or a Harry Potter setting is a more blatant signal for readers and a powerful starting place in tone or message for the composer. This is what we need to consider (and teach) within a literacy context. Even when we compose new work, our words and ideas are influenced by the world around us. We experience in ways that are shaped by the past.

Kanye and Old Glory: A Confrontational Soul

I was sitting on the deck of a pirate ship in a non-descript office building in San Francisco celebrating the nuptials of my close friends from earlier in the day when a voice next to me said, “I heard you like Kanye West.”

I knew it was bait. And I took it.

An hour later and my voice is straining above the usual din of pirate ship-themed bars in non-descript buildings and I’m on my second tropical drink and haven’t even really gotten past the most recent album and the whole “leather jogging pants” thing.

A week later my friend Cliff posts this article about Kanye West, Frantz Fanon & Double Consciousness by Jessica Ann Mitchell. I shared the article on my own Facebook page with the amendment, “I am preparing a Kanye-like rant on why Kanye is the most important cultural figure…. ever (Kanye was not above hyperbole).”

And so, agreeing with one of my good friend’s brother, I want to tell you why “Everyone should want to be like Kanye.”

 

On Not Burying the Lede

There are two things I learned back when I was doing a lot more music journalism that are appropriate for this post:

  1. Don’t bury the lede. As rant-heavy as this post will be, here’s what you need to know: the very things that make Kanye reviled today are exactly what we need more of. In particular, I want to focus here on why we need more men of color being indignant and not settling for labels like “brash,” “petulant,” or “pompous.” I am not being ironic when I say that Kanye’s  actions  are revolutionary in intent and execution. And while I agree with the thesis of Jessica Ann Mitchell’s article, I also believe that Kanye’s confrontational behavior is not simply Dubois-like “double consciousness” but as distanced a move as Kanye can make within the capitalist mechanisms his profession has entrenched him in.
  2. The second thing I learned as a writer was to not pull the hipser-y card and describe music by just name dropping other artists. For example, for Yeezus I wouldn’t want to say, “Imagine Metal Machine Music for the millennial hip-hop generation.” You’ll see this move from music journalists a lot and it’s a lazy one. Name dropping and using the “it sounds like” are a big no-no: “yeah man, imagine if Rick Rubin produced Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison live album and told him to only cover Hall and Oates songs but in the style of Philip Glass.” [Aside: but seriously, imagine how awesome that album would be.] While it would be convenient to throw in a litany of other artists and activists that help define Kanye’s actions I want to follow in the footsteps of his ego and focus on Kanye. As an individual in America. Today.
  3. (Okay I said only two things but …) I’ve written at length on this blog about how we can extend critical pedagogy vis-à-vis Kanye’s work. I would encourage educators to look here for less rant-y thoughts with clearer theoretical and pedagogical ramifications.

Since this post spilled beyond the 2k word count, the rest is below the jump. Continue reading

Hustle, Flow, and adventures in #PWFWriMo & #RPRGWriMo

Last week, I talked about where I was wobbling in my teaching practice. This week I want to describe a new pose I am trying out.

This week month I’m trying out a pose of sustained writing and “hustle.”

This month is National Novel Writing Month–colloquially NaNoWriMo, which challenges participants to write a 50,000+ word novel in the month of November. It’s a daunting number of words, but when broken into daily amounts (just shy of 1700 words per day) it’s … less daunting (?). I’ve never actually done it. However, I did challenge my 12th graders to participate several years ago. One of my students, Sam, was already a novelist in her own right and the month of November was one where she was co-teaching the class with me and coaching her peers with myriad writing strategies. I talk a bit more about this process of student-driven writing instruction in my book.

In any case, while I’m not writing a novel this month (or in the foreseeable future), I am using the online momentum of NaNoWriMo to focus on getting significant wordage on two current research projects: my work with Cindy O’Donnell-Allen on Pose/Wobble/Flow and my work exploring the literacy practices enacted in tabletop roleplaying games. I am calling these two projects, respectively, #PWFWriMo and #RPGWriMo. (There’s also a contingent of academics tweeting to the hashtag #AcWriMo that I’ve been lurking around.)

I want to describe my writing practices briefly. First of all my rules for my month of #NaNoWriMo are as follows: every day I will publicly update my progress on Twitter – it forces me to feel accountable and to feel bad on the days in November when I don’t write. A day of writing starts when I wake up and ends when I go to sleep. That means even if I’m writing well after midnight, it’s the same day (so chill out imaginary time-sticklers!). I’m also keeping two tracking systems. On my computer I have a simple Excel file where I list the actual words I write each day. It looks like this:

In my notebook I have a chart that measures writing in increments of 250 words at a time. It looks like this:

I will write, at a later time about how I am using Scrivener to allow me to organize my jumble of verbs and haphazard sentences into something useful. For now, here is a screenshot of in-progress messiness and varying writing prompt:

What I think is important to share here isn’t how awesome it feels to be 15,000+ words deep into a couple of projects that I am working on. Instead, I am interested in how reading and writing are fundamentally different in 2013. When I write in the morning and add my progress to a growing number of tweets, I am joining a community of other writers. I feel accountable because of how technology is connecting my literacy practices with others. It also allows me to engage in some good ol’ shit-talking with my friend Daye:

Reading comments in this post from last week, I’ve been thinking about my writing practices this week and the day-to-day stress of work and teaching and home life. I mean, it’s not like my workload is reduced during the month I’m choosing to put (digital) pen to (digital) paper. I think about those frustrating years of working a weekend job and teaching at the same time–trying to cram in grading student essays while working the graveyard shift at a newsstand on Sunset Blvd. Not fun. Cindy talks about GYST: Get Your Shit Together. I wonder if that’s an appropriate “pose” I can take on. It sure is something I wobble with on any given day. One of my early teaching mentors, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, talked about being a teacher and having to “hustle.” And I think about treating my writing and “real” responsibilities as hustle. In the past when I’ve played around with things like NaNoWriMo, I have approached it like this:

And this month I’m trying to approach it like this (while still keeping everything else somewhat together):

I’m only a quarter deep into what is a long month of writing, so we’ll see how long I can keep this pose going. I know there will be days I am not productive but I also know (and have felt) the awesome flow of cranking out 2,000 words on a beautiful Sunday morning. We’ll see where this pose takes me.

What new pose are you trying out?

 

[Also: it’s not too late to jump on the #NaNoWriMo bandwagon! If you get some awesome writing done, be sure to let my friend Daye know how much better you are doing.]